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A Tale of Two Davises

What Al Davis would have thought of his son moving the Raiders to Las Vegas

(Aaron Dana)
(Aaron Dana)

Samuel Johnson once said, “There must always be a struggle between a father and son, while one aims at power and the other at independence.” Consider, for example, Al Davis and his son, Mark. Both men are unique in their own way; the father, who died in 2011, was a pioneer of the game — from branding and scouting to building a winning franchise. The son, a die-hard fan, is passionate about the players, eager to win, but most of all questing to protect his father’s legacy. To understand the son, you first have to understand the father — and the influences he had on so many lives. But to understand the father, you have to accept that there were two Al Davises — the one who dominated the game in the ’60s and ’70s, and the one who was reluctant to change until the bitter end.

It’s been 10 years since I left the Raiders. When people learn that I worked for Al Davis, I typically get peppered with a specific brand of Al Davis questions. What was he like? (Governing, demanding, impatient, and highly intelligent with an incredible memory.) Were the rumors about his diet true? (Yes.) Could you really smell him coming a mile away? (Without a doubt.) Would he love being in Vegas? (Yes.) Every time I answer these questions, I shift into my half-assed impersonation of his distinctive accent — one part Brooklynese, one part indeterminate Southern twang. The Davis voice is often imitated but never replicated.

Al Davis was my childhood hero. I read everything about him growing up in Jersey and could recite “The Autumn Wind” with great pride. Later in my career many of the scouting ideas from my Cleveland days came from my obsession with Al. Working for him was a dream come true and a learning experience. I absorbed all aspects of football, from play design to game management to procuring talent. He was highly advanced in every category, and my nine years with the Raiders helped shape my football education. We spoke via phone every day. He conducted most of our communications as if we were on Jeopardy!. Davis, in the Alex Trebek role, demanded that I furnish fully formed questions based on answers he threw my way. But Davis was nowhere as patient as Trebek. As soon as his secretary got me on the phone he’d break in with some version of this greeting: “I have three things for you.” I never replied, instead waiting for answer no. 1.

“That guy from Utah who missed a season with a knee injury,” Davis might say.

My answer: “You mean offensive lineman Barry Sims?” (Or, I guess I should have said, “Who is offensive lineman Barry Sims?”)

“Yes, Sims,” Davis would reply. “How big are his hands?”

If I couldn’t provide the exact measurement off the top of my head, I would be bumped from “Final Raider Jeopardy.” The one thing you could never say to Al(ex) was, “I’m not sure; let me look it up.” That drove him nuts. “Aw, fuck, Lombardi, I could look it up myself,” he’d snap. I could never ask him about a subject that wasn’t on his list; if I did, he would immediately say, “That’s not why I called you,” and the phone would click.

Despite the tough phone calls, my daily contact with an innovator of the game was remarkable. If you understood Al’s background and influences, you could understand how he built and branded “The Raiders.” He loved baseball; he loved the speed of the Brooklyn Dodgers as much as he loved the power of the New York Yankees — “The Raiders” combined the two. “Size and speed” became a Raiders maxim so distinctive that it’s ridiculous that the NFL has not named some portion of the NFL combine after him — or at least welded a plaque to the chair he would occupy for the five days. The combine was his first love, and seeing him sit at the starting line of the 40-yard dash was a memory most combine participants never forget. I can still hear him yell to each player, “Do great.”

When it came to the iconography, he reached back to the memories of his childhood. He grabbed the black from the West Point Army Black Knights and the silver from the Detroit Lions to make the Silver and Black a household nickname and a historic uniform. And in them, America saw “The Raiders” dominate the NFL from 1967 until 1993. In that span, Davis’s teams won three Super Bowls, lost one, and appeared in 12 conference championship games.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Like most ambitious men who achieve tremendous success, change eventually became an enemy for Al Davis. And it was a resilient opponent. In 1994, when the league redefined player movement and the salary cap was implemented leaguewide, the Raiders struggled. The team made the playoffs just three more times during his ownership tenure. In his prime, the Raiders under Davis’s control could save any player — he feared virtually nothing, often saying, “I can control most things, but I don’t seem to be able to control death.” As time passed, football became more complex and he defied the shifting tides of the game. The longer I worked for Davis, the more his inability to embrace change calcified. It was so obvious that I had a sign in my office from Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, that said: “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.” In the final years, from 2003 to 2011, with a 45–99 record, the Raiders became irrelevant.

Nothing was linear for Davis, and nothing was simple. But there were predictable elements: his signature silver-and-black jogging suit, his daily diet, and the way he organized his draft board. The Raiders draft room reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone called “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” It’s about a man from the 1800s who crosses a hill and enters 1961. For me, entering the Raiders draft room was the opposite. I left the year I was living in and was instantly transported to the ’60s. There was nary a contemporary object in sight — no magnetic boards, no player cards, no televisions. There were just two modern essentials: a grease board and a tape machine. However, the tape machine was reconfigured, so Al could rewind as he would his old 16-millimeter machine. Technology forced him to change slightly, but never without a fight.

However, when it came to changing cities, Al Davis always said he’d do what he thought was best financially for the Raiders. Like Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II, Al always made money for his partners. In fact, when he left Oakland for Los Angeles, in 1982, his vision was centered on pay-per-view rights and the idea that being in the second-largest media market in the United States would only enhance the Raiders’ appeal. The idea had foresight, but pay-per-view never came to the NFL. The move to Los Angeles was prescient, but he could never find a piece of land to build a stadium. Or, perhaps more accurately, he could never find someone willing to pay for the land, then pay for a stadium with Davis reaping all the benefits. Besides fighting change, he always negotiated from a simple platform: Raiders win, you lose. The team’s motto was real: Just win, baby.

Davis once said, “The greatness of The Raiders lies in their future.” He never said, “Oakland Raiders,” “San Antonio Raiders,” or “Los Angeles Raiders.” Just “The Raiders.” And for Davis, that was a huge distinction. The word before Raiders mattered the most: “The.” He wanted The Raiders mentioned in the same fashion as the White House or the President of the United States. A powerful and implacable national institution. Any place that appeared before “Raiders” was insignificant. Not because Davis disliked the city his team occupied, rather because he saw The Raiders as a worldwide brand that transcended the local.

The last 10 years of Al Davis get a bit blurry. Short-term memories have caused critics to ignore the longevity and achievements of his career and focus on his later years. Those last 10 years were tough on him — physically and mentally. As he lost his grip on controlling his team’s outcome on the field, health issues slowed him. They say people deal with mortality in two ways during the last stages of their lives. Some choose to embrace the end, accepting the joy of all that life has given; some become bitter and filled with anger, trusting no one and ready to fight the world. Davis was a fighter by trade, a nonconformist, and those last years were hard on everyone around him — from his employees to his son, Mark. No matter how hard coaches and staff members tried to help him, he was always going to do what he thought was best. He was fond of reminding all of us, “You just don’t understand.”

And none of us did. The constant cycle of hiring and firing was pointedly against one of Davis’s core tenets: “Once a Raider, always a Raider.” Managing his legacy consumed him, and instead of remembering his contributions to the game we remember the losing years. His reluctance to accept change and his obsession with his legacy became deterrents to winning — something he never allowed to happen during his glory years.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And this is where the son was different. Mark Davis was not going to be hiring and firing people left and right. Even after three difficult, sometimes disastrous seasons for general manager Reggie McKenzie, Davis stayed the course. He liked McKenzie and wanted to give him the time to repair and rebuild the team. He listened to the advice of head coach Jack Del Rio about changing the culture, changing the building, giving new players who knew nothing of the great Raiders past a better environment.

Since his father’s death, Mark has given the Raiders much-needed stability and direction and has shown a willingness to do whatever it would take to win. He also found a permanent home with a soon-to-be-built state-of-the-art stadium — in Las Vegas, the scene of many of his father’s birthday celebrations. When asked what his father’s reaction would be to moving to Vegas, Mark said: “He would be proud of the fact that two kids who started as ball boys in the organization, me and [Raiders president] Marc [Badain], were able to do something that we weren’t able to do for a long time — get our own stadium. I think he’d be very proud of that.”

Those two former ball boys saved the Raiders. Had Mark not stepped in to take over the team with an eye toward modernization, the losing would have continued, and all that Al had built would have come tumbling down. Mark made changes with respect for the tradition; he highlighted the team’s pride and poise and most of all he preserved his father’s legacy. The way Mark negotiated and treated the coaches displayed patience, and most of all he allowed his employees to do their jobs.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Like Al, the younger Davis and Badain have proved to be dealmakers, but unlike Al, they’ve been willing to give as well as receive. Al once said, “We don’t take what the defense gives us; we take whatever the hell we want.” Al would have loved moving to Vegas, but not with any outlay of his cash or a court battle with his fellow owners over who owns the Las Vegas market. Much like his football, his style of stadium development and negotiation was old-school. He wanted what he wanted and wouldn’t budge from his position. But Mark Davis and Badain’s tireless efforts to withstand the politics of the league and shape their own destiny would have made Al proud. For example, look at how they handled the failure to secure a spot in the Los Angeles sweepstakes. No team has more fans in L.A. than the Raiders. Walk around any part of the city and there are twice as many Raiders hats as there are Rams. With quarterback Derek Carr as their franchise player, the Raiders moving to Los Angeles would have given the City of Angels a playoff-ready team — yet the league chose the Rams and gave the Chargers the first option to join them. As Mark Davis said, the Raiders “finished third in a three-team race.” What would Al Davis have done in that situation? Al would have dragged his fellow owners to court and sued for the right to get to Los Angeles. No one was going to tell Al he was the third-best choice for L.A. unless it was a judge. That’s not what Mark Davis and Badain did. But their relentlessness to endure after the Los Angeles market went to the Rams is truly a Raiders trait. Mark Davis’s Raiders cooperated and worked with the league office; he was willing to give and take, something his father never wanted to do.

The new Raiders executive team proved to be shrewd dealmakers. They knew a deal with Oakland was never going to happen, in part because of lack of trust between both parties following past legal actions. In 1997, the city of Oakland sued the Raiders over their refusal to sign a stadium-naming rights deal for the Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders countersued. There was far too much bad blood between them, and never a viable publicly funded solution to create a stadium in the Bay Area. So the Raiders occupied Oakland for as long as was necessary. Once again, “The” triumphed over “Oakland.”

Al Davis loved being called a maverick — he self-identified as an unorthodox, independent thinker. He once said, “History will dictate my legacy.” Mark Davis has avoided many of the tactics of his father’s familiar game plan — filing lawsuits, negotiating from win-lose positions. Instead, he found a way to make a deal, to build a successful on-field product, and to serve his father’s legacy. Now he’ll honor it with a party of his own in Vegas.